Saturday, February 19, 2011

Review: Washington Square by Henry James

Washington Square
Washington Square
I must admit to not being excited to read this book, due to two reasons.  Primarily, War and Peace was going so well and I was sad to leave it sitting on my shelf for a couple of weeks.  Putting it down seems to destroy my rhythm, and I think it will take me some time to get back into it.  Secondly, after reading the opening line from the novel, I was afraid that the book would be a slog due to the writing style. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong.  My assumption was that the language would be thick, full of run-on sentences full of tough text.  I think the novel started out this way, but became more fluid as it progressed, although it just could be that I became used to James' style.  There were only a few words that didn't sit in my vocabulary (perhaps I will post them later) and despite some tremendously long paragraphs, the text was pretty easy to get through.  Enough of the prose.

The plot in itself turned out to be a concept not unfamiliar to the general time period.  Good looking poor man tries to marry 'plain' girl who has a significant fortune.  In this case, Catherine is the daughter of Dr. Sloper, who is an extremely intelligent man.  Mr. Townsend, the suitor, tries to woo Catherine and Dr. Sloper sees right through him.  Despite Catherine's insistence that she is in love, Dr. Sloper tries to discourage her potential marriage, and states that he will withhold his fortune should the event come to fruition.  He anticipates Mr. Townsend going away without a potential dowry figuring into the mix.  In my opinion, this is standard literature for the end of the 19th century, and coupled with a lack of beauty in the prose [I promised not to talk about this again], this book appears on the surface to be nothing special.  It is a plot-driven work, true, but the message reveals this work as a true gem.  

[Small amounts of spoilers begin here, though I think the thoughts make it worth it]

Where this book deviates from these standard classics is the thought processes behind the main characters.  If you read the review of Phil [a comment from my last post] he praises Dr. Sloper a hero, which I couldn't disagree with more.  I believe that James is proving the exact opposite - the real villain is Dr. Sloper.  There is no question that Dr. Sloper is an intelligent man, and is continually right about things that he sees that others do not.  The common conception is to treat Dr. Sloper's brilliance as being an omnipotent hero, trying to save Catherine from her follies.  It is revealed that the Doctor has an overwhelming desire to be right, and he torments Catherine in order to seek his revenge, "the Doctor had his revenge, after all." [238].  If you view Dr. Sloper as a hero, I believe it is due to the fact that you focus on his core intelligence and ignore his extreme character flaw - the lack of compassion and emotion for someone he obviously loves.  The best way to describe Dr. Sloper in his exactness, is by calling him vindictive.

I think Catherine's demise is not due to her relationship with Mr. Townsend at all, but due to her poor relationship with her father.  Even if Catherine married Townsend, I think a toxic relationship with him would be better to her than a toxic relationship with her father.  The reason Catherine is such a heroine is because she stands up to her father based on principle, but at the same time treats him with a tremendous amount of respect.  She has virtually no options [marry and go against her father's wishes or to not marry, and go against the person she loves - Townsend] and she picks a middle ground to try to appease both, and she does so with the highest moral character.  In the end, she pleases neither and nearly destroys herself.
James' throws you off the scent of the real villain, Dr. Sloper, by focusing on Mrs. Penniman, the Doctor's sister that lives with him and Catherine.  She is infatuated with Morris Townsend, and has a desire to be around him as well create a sense of drama and intrigue so that her life is not as dull.  She is dimwitted, but also has a selfishness that she tries to pass off as altruistic.  The reader has to fight being absorbed in only her as the villain.  Her lack of intelligence (which I think is overstressed) and remoteness from Catherine, makes her less of a harmful figure than her father who uses both of these things to destroy Catherine.  His motive seems to be all a big test - a test of her daughter's 'intelligence' and in the process, he hurts her greatly.  His end ceases to be about breaking up a hurtful marriage and turns into creating a toxic environment for Catherine.  The very fact that Catherine doesn't hang herself or ingest poison is a testament to her strength.  While not as intelligent as her father, she is a more well-rounded individual with a good heart and strong morals.  Her downfall is that she tries to appease everyone, but in the end she finally takes a route that is solely for herself.  This makes her a hero.

The more I think about the plot of this novel, the more I am enamored with the message of the book.  Because the prose is so simple, I found it helped me to dissect the book better.  I believe this is one of those novels that needs time to germinate, and because it is a simple read, the tendency could be to get through it quickly.  This does the work a disservice, and I would suggest giving it time to breathe and infuse wisdom.

What did you think of this novel?  Have you read any other James' work that you would recommend?


Kathy said...

I LOVE Henry James. This wasn't my favorite of his, but I still loved it. More highly recommended: The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove. I didn't like The Ambassadors, though, and I can't remember why.

Anonymous said...

I just came across your blog and I had to comment on this post only because, although I am a bibliophile and voracious reader of classic literature, I have not yet read ANY Henry James! I know, I know.... I have a few of his books on the Kindle that I need to get to and I think I will add 'Washington Square' to the list as well. You have me interested now. Thanks! :)

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Kathy - perhaps you forget because your an amnesiac :)

I'm going to give 'The Portrait of a Lady' a go next, based on your recommendation. Thank you for that.

Muse - This was my first Henry James work. I was afraid to give him a start, due to a lot of hatred I have heard around the literary blogging world, but I'm glad I pushed through that talk. Happy to pass along a recommendation - will be waiting to hear what you think! If you don't like it, perhaps it will be a cure to your isomnia. Either way, win-win. :)